There’s a complex relationship between seizures and alcohol. Heavy, long-term alcohol use and withdrawal from alcohol can lead to seizures. Alcohol can also trigger seizures if you have epilepsy and often interacts poorly with anti-seizure medications.
In this article, learn what alcohol does to the brain, how it can lead to seizures, and what you need to know about alcohol use if you already have a seizure disorder.
How Alcohol Affects the Brain
Alcohol affects the way brain signals travel and communicate. When these signals are disrupted, the following symptoms can appear:
- Balance problems
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Memory problems
Balance and movement issues caused by alcohol consumption may resemble a seizure, but seizures are more commonly associated with heavy or long-term alcohol use.
People who drink a lot of alcohol for an extended period can develop permanent changes in their brains, and removing alcohol can lead to withdrawal symptoms. Seizures, and a severe condition called delirium tremens, are possible complications of alcohol withdrawal.
Can Alcoholism Cause Epilepsy?
People who drink heavily for an extended period may experience seizures if they stop using alcohol, even for a brief time. Seizures are often associated with alcohol withdrawal.
Delirium tremens is the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal and affects about 2% of people with alcohol use disorder.
Seizures and other hyperactive responses are common with delirium tremens and include other symptoms such as:
- Altered consciousness
Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous for many reasons, but seizures and the possible development of delirium tremens increase the risk of severe complications or even death.
Alcohol and Seizure Risks
Light, infrequent drinking isn’t linked to seizures, but people who are regular or heavy alcohol users have an increased risk of alcoholic tremors or seizure activity. Though alcohol can trigger seizures, they are more often linked to withdrawal from alcohol if your body has developed a tolerance for it and dependency on it.
Alcohol Withdrawal and Seizures
Alcohol withdrawal happens when you consume alcohol heavily or regularly enough that your body has developed a dependence on it. When you are dependent on alcohol and go without it, you may experience symptoms of withdrawal that can include the following:
Symptoms are generally mild during the first 12–24 hours of withdrawal but increase in intensity around the third day without alcohol. This is usually when seizures can occur if they do at all.
Is It Safe to Drink Alcohol if You Have Epilepsy?
People with epilepsy are usually advised to avoid alcohol because it can increase the risk of seizure activity. Moderate to heavy alcohol use is associated with a higher risk of seizures in people with epilepsy; roughly 18% of people with epilepsy reported increased seizure activity after consuming alcohol in a 2018 study.
A report from 2021 also found that alcohol-related deaths were five times more likely in people with epilepsy than those without the condition.
Alcohol use can trigger seizures in people with epilepsy. Those with epilepsy who have alcohol dependence and stop drinking suddenly have an additional risk of withdrawal-induced seizures.
Interaction With Anti-Seizure Medications
Another one of the big reasons people with epilepsy are warned not to consume alcohol is that many of the anti-seizure and anti-epileptic drugs that treat epilepsy do not mix well with alcohol. Most of these medications lower your alcohol tolerance, causing you to become intoxicated or feel the effects of alcohol more quickly or severely.
How Much Is Too Much?
Alcohol consumption and its impact on your mind and body depend on the individual. Your body size, gender, metabolism, and genetics can affect alcohol tolerance and dependence.
Generally, heavy drinking is defined as:
- More than eight drinks per week for women
- More than 15 drinks per week for men
Binge drinking (heavy drinking in a short period or single occasion) is considered:
- More than five drinks on one occasion for men
- More than four drinks on one occasion for women
Although these are general guidelines, your tolerance or consumption recommendation can vary based on your overall health, size, and medical condition.
Heavy alcohol use can lead to seizures, especially when you stop drinking and start to enter a period of withdrawal. However, if you have a seizure disorder or epilepsy, you also face risks when drinking alcohol—both from the increased risk of seizure activity and potential interactions with seizure medications.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
- What is considered excessive alcohol consumption?
The amount of alcohol considered excessive depends on your gender, size, and metabolism. Generally, more than eight drinks for women and 15 drinks for men per week, or more than four drinks for women or five drinks for men in one sitting, is considered excessive.
- What are the most common triggers of seizures?
Alcohol is one possible seizure trigger, but there are many more. Flashing lights, lack of sleep, missed medications, and even diet changes have the potential to cause seizures in some people.
- Can you treat epilepsy without medication?
Antiepileptic medications are the most common way to treat seizures, but you can also make diet and lifestyle changes that may help. Switching to a ketogenic diet or practicing yoga may help reduce or limit seizure activity. There are also surgical options or seizure devices that may help. Talk to your healthcare provider about the right treatment plan for your specific seizure disorder and lifestyle.
Source: verywellhealth.com, Rachael Zimllich, Smita Patel